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Ask most people what they do, and they will tell you their job title. Ask them what their employer does, they will tell you what the company sells. But if you ask them what their employer is about or what they believe in or value, most people have no idea how to answer. We are taught to think of companies in terms of products or services, instead of beliefs and values. But today’s consumers want to engage with the companies they do business with and want to buy from companies that have shared values. So it’s time to flip the narrative, and start treating a business as an entity that has a reputation, values, beliefs, a voice and an approach in what it does and why.
If the mantra for being successful in today’s hyper-competitive global marketplace is ‘differentiate or die’, then it’s essential to understand what that means and how to accomplish it. For a company to achieve being truly D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-T, there needs to be a shift in the paradigm. It is not about changing the benefits or features of the product or service. It’s not about being more or better than the competition. It is about changing the conversation and answering the question “what are we about?” What matters? It starts by defining the brand’s specific point of view. What is the company’s opinion or vision of the future? What does the company see as the way forward? How does the company see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ for the client? It is about determining and communicating the brand’s beliefs and framing the conversation to be broader and more outwardly focused.
Case in point. Zappos is an example of a company that dared to be different by flipping the narrative on how customers bought shoes. While most people think of Zappos as a retailer that sells shoes and other apparel, the founders of Zappos — Nick Swinmurn and Tony Hsieh — actually knew nothing about shoes when they started the company. In fact, at that time, the idea of selling shoes online seemed bizarre to many since it is one of the few items of clothing that is more about utility, fit and comfort than style. All online shoe retailers had one common pain point: there was no way to try the shoes on before buying. But Zappos’ founders reframed the conversation. They did not see themselves as selling shoes. They were a customer service company that happened to sell shoes. They focused on servicing the customer who wanted an easier way to shop for shoes. To meet that need, Zappos eliminated shipping costs. Not just the cost to ship the shoes to the customer, but the cost for the customer to ship back shoes it did not want after all. Zappos also invested heavily in a call center that would not only engage with customers and then try to solve customers’ issues, but made recommendations based on their desires and sent batches of shoes for each customer to try on. Customers could then send any unwanted shoes back, free of charge. To provide all that service, they established a huge call center. In time, they made a point of specifically hiring call center employees who had never worked at a call center because they found that those with previous experience had been trained to get off the phone with the customer as quickly as possible. Instead, Zappos didn’t want to have to break their call center employees from previous bad habits. They wanted their staff to feel free to chat with customers without any pressure to finish the call. By using staff to understand the customers’ needs and then shipping them the shoes which best aligned with that to try on, Zappos was sending a portion of the shoe store to the customer.
On Zappos’ website, women were also able to search for shoes by size (length and width), color, material, heel height, style, function, fit, and more. And, if Zappos didn’t carry the shoes a customer wanted, they referred them to other sellers that could. This is still true today, 20 years later, which may explain why over 75% of Zappos’ customers are repeat buyers and the company reported $537 Million in global net sales in 2018. By taking customer service to a level that no other retailer in that vertical had reached before, Zappos differentiated itself not by the product features or benefits it offered. They didn’t sell better shoes or more shoes or higher quality shoes. They sold the same kind of shoes that could be found in most shoe stores. But, they shifted the paradigm of what they were about… bringing the shoe store into their customers’ homes through deeply personal service provided by highly-trained call center staff, an outstanding return policy and a sophisticated online shoe showcase. At the time they launched, that was DIFFERENT. Today, Zappos’ success has made it the standard for the online retail experience.
Rising Above the Noise
Right about now, there are many reading this article who think “I can’t be like Zappos. There is no way to differentiate what I do.” Accountants. Attorneys. Lenders. Well, think again. If Geico was able to totally differentiate themselves in the insurance industry – using humorous commercials, a green gecko mascot, a slogan assuring customers they will save 15% or more on car insurance and an incredibly user-friendly website and staff — then differentiation can be done in any line of work, even in the most boring and loathed businesses on the planet.
Case in point. There are few professions more dreaded than the dentist. However, there was one dentist whose goal was to, not just to differentiate his dental practice, but to make appealing a service that most people associate with pain. A lofty goal. His approach was to create a practice with an exclusive, upscale Spa atmosphere that spoke of pampering and relaxation, not pain.
From the moment a “customer” (a/k/a patient) steps into the foyer of the dental practice, he is greeted with a $5,000 coffee machine, 18 different teas served in fine bone china from a silver tray and an oven baking healthy muffins, an enticing aroma that replaced the smell of disinfectant and medicine. There is soothing music playing in the background. The décor is Japanese contemporary with diffused lighting and a rock fountain. The customer is the welcomed by his “personal care nurse,” ushered into a VIP suite (a/k/a treatment room) with his name and photo on the door. In the suite, he is offered a choice of DVDs and/or streaming services to watch on a flat-screen overhead monitor with noise-cancelling headphones (to drown out the sound of any drills). Last but not least, he receives a buzzer to press if he experiences any pain. The practice is focused on holistic wellness and relaxation, and happens to specialize in dental care.
Steve Jobs did something similar when he shifted Apple’s entire marketing approach by removing the product – a computer — entirely from all marketing materials and dared people to “Think Different.” Jobs understood that to think different is to create something that’s truly unique…. something that grabs people’s attention and can’t be easily copied. And, something that offers a clear-cut, marketable benefit to the customer.
To differentiate requires a deep dive into understanding not only what a company does, but what it values and believes and how it approaches business. For companies wanting to truly distinguish themselves in the marketplace, it might be a good exercise to create a Brand DNA. Here are some steps.
Research the competition.
What do they do well? Are any totally different in how they do what they do? If so, what values or beliefs are they embracing / communicating? Where do they fall short? Is there something that they don’t offer but your company does? Is there something in your approach that is totally different? Does your company have a particular advantage? Is there something in how you do what you do that is completely different than any other company in your space? Look for holes in the market – an opportunity — that can define a niche.
Spot consumer pain points.
List the main frustrations of consumers in your industry. What doesn’t work? What is difficult? How could it be done easier, faster, cheaper, better? For pet owners, for example, finding the right brand of food for a particular breed’s digestive needs at one store is a challenge. The store might not always carry a good variety. And cans and bags are stacked high off the ground making it hard to load into the shopping cart. Along came Chewy.com. The company wanted to cater to pet owners. The site is not just a retailer of dog and cat food. They feature over 1,000 brands of pet food for over 20 different types of animals, birds and fish. According to the company, “We’re working to be the most trusted and convenient online destination for pet parents and our partners – vets and service providers – alike. Our success is measured by the happiness of the people and pets we serve, not simply by the amount of pet supplies we deliver. That’s why we continue to think of outside-the-Chewy-box ways to delight, surprise, and thank our loyal pet lovers.” They deliver pet food to the customers’ door, charge no delivery fee and feature pricing that is lower than Pet Supermarket, Petco and Natural K9. It is no surprise that Chewy.com has announced that it is going public.
Figure out what sets you apart, or create a point of differentiation.
Perhaps your gift basket shop has a personal shopper who customizes the items in the basket to fit the recipients’ needs. Or maybe your Real Estate Brokerage firm has an in-house decorator to help find furnishings to fit the new space? It could be that your catering firm provides a lighting and space planner to help pull together the setting for an event. Or maybe your jewelry store is the only one with an inhouse gemologist or designer. Or, perhaps your Business Incubator non-profit is partnered with a law firm that helps with incorporation, trademark and other intellectual property. These are ways that organizations can find a way to differentiate.
If there is no differentiator, invent one. Don’t be afraid to allow the message to evolve as the business grows. For example, all makers of ice cream have a host of flavors. But Ben & Jerry’s has taken “flavors” to a whole other level. They have covered all their bases with “more than 60 flavors to satisfy every bowl.” They feature their top 10 flavors of the year, each year. And they even have a “Flavor Graveyard” at their headquarters in Vermont (an actual physical graveyard) where any flavor that was tried and discontinued is laid to rest. Each flavor in the graveyard has a short amusing poem explaining why it was it is now DOA.
Offer a differentiator.
If coming up with a solution for a pain point is not the differentiator, focus on offering a different kind of cure for a common customer frustration. For example, for people purchasing a new home, the builder can offer a Home Warranty that covers all systems for 10 years. Or the builder can offer a house cleaner who will come to do a full-cleaning of the home a week after move-in so that the buyers can rest while their new abode is restored to its brand new sine. Or the builder can provide a handy tool kit that features all of the tools needed to do basic household repairs. Or the builder can provide the buyers a truck-for-a-day to use on moving day. These are all ways that one particular type of company could differentiate itself from competitors.
Once an approach, philosophy, or point of differentiation is defined, it must be condensed into a few words and then communicated throughout the brand at every touchpoint. It must be infused into the brand in order for it to become the “thing” for which the company is known and why it is remembered.
Quote of the Week
“The world will not celebrate your similarity but your difference.” Bernard Kelvin Clive